BMCR 1998.06.23

98.6.23, Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius, Robin Hard, Meditations. Wordsworth classics of world literature. Ware: Wordsworth, 1997. xxii, 200 pages ; 20 cm.. ISBN 9781853264863 2.50.

“Just as it seems to you when you take your bath—oil, sweat, filth, greasy water, all quite vile—such is every part of life and every given thing”—every part of life except one’s own virtuous actions and every given thing except one’s own hegemonikon (“ruling faculty”). Here in Med. 8.24 the signature sobriety of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus turns into an emphatically somber expression of the Stoic doctrine of “indifferents”, that all that is not virtue is vile scoria. Marcus’ frequently used technique of deflating what most suppose to be of great value—fame, political power, wealth, luxurious clothing, sex—imbues the Meditations with its distinctive charm. This “purely private notebook for Marcus’ reflections” (ix) is rightly judged by Gill to be “a work without parallel among writings surviving from Classical antiquity” (vii). Oxford University Press published a paperback edition of Marcus’Meditations in 1990 1 with which this new Wordsworth Classics edition would presumably compete. So it seems fitting to compare the 1990 OUP Rutherford/Farquharson edition with this 1997 Wordsworth Gill/Hard edition throughout my review.

This edition is Gill and Hard’s second collaboration on a new edition of the work of a Stoic of the Imperial age. In form it resembles their 1995 J. M. Dent edition of Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus. 2 Gill’s concise but informative introduction divides into a synopsis of Marcus’ biography and imperial reign, comments on the form, purpose, survival and influence, and some recurrent themes of the Meditations, Marcus’ relation to Stoic ethics in general and to Epictetus in particular, and an interesting paragraph on the extent to which Marcus’ practice as emperor matched his philosophical ideas. Gill’s conclusion regarding the latter is that “the Meditations suggest that Marcus regarded his objective as performing his role as emperor in a virtuous way and in line with the best Roman practice, and that he saw this as being a proper way of expressing human rationality and cosmic citizenship. So far as we can tell from the evidence of his civil and military practice during his rather difficult period of imperial rule, this (rather than social reform) is the objective he set himself, and one he largely fulfilled” (xv).

The bibliography contains a list of editions of the Meditations in Greek, a list of its English translations, and a list of works on Marcus’ historical and cultural context ranging from P. Noyen, “Marcus Aurelius, the Greatest Practician of Stoicism,”L’ Antiquite classique 24 (1955) to M. Foucault, The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality, vol. 3, tr. R. Hurley, London 1988. A list of works on Stoicism and Hellenistic philosophy and a list of works on Marcus’ thought and style are also included in the bibliography.

Now some minor complaints. A conspicuous absence among the English translations of the Meditations listed in the bibliography is G. M. A. Grube’s 1983 Hackett edition—an entry included in the OUP edition. Second, Gill is right to emphasize the deep influence Epictetus exerts on the shape of Marcus’ ideas, yet the few parallel passages in the Discourses which Gill cites in some of his notes could be supplemented with others. For example, 6.41, 8.41, and 8.47 are also echoes of Epictetan discourses. Third, the numeration is not printed on pages 25, 37, 77, and 87, and on pages 73 and 75 the header is mistakenly labelled ‘Book 7’ instead of Book 8.

More serious criticisms can also be made. Gill’s notes are disappointing, for they are neither as thorough nor as helpful as they might have been. Small omissions in the notes include failure to cross-reference 4.20 and 7.15 (both passages contain discussion of the deceitful attractiveness of an emerald, gold, and purple). No notes at all are provided for 5.1 or 8.12 (two passages in which Marcus addresses the difficulty of getting out of bed), nor are these sections cross-referenced.

Other deficiencies in the notes are widespread. Consider, for example, three different topics that appear repeatedly throughout the Meditations : focus on the present, the whole-part relation, and the foulness of things other than virtue. Marcus’ position on the proper way to think about the present is described in a host of passages: 2.14, 3.10, 5.23, 6.32, 6.37, 7.8, 7.13, 7.29, 7.49, 8.36, 8.44, 9.6, 9.29, 9.41, 10.1, 10.11, 10.12, 10.27, 11.13, 12.1, 12.3, and 12.26. An equally prevalent theme is the relationship between wholes and parts—what metaphysicians call ‘mereology’. Mereological passages include 2.9, 4.14, 4.29, 4.40, 5.8, 5.24, 6.38, 6.40, 6.43, 6.45, 6.54, 7.9, 7.19, 8.7, 8.34, 9.8, 9.22, 9.23, 9.39, 10.6, 10.7, 10.17, 11.2, 11.8, 11.16, 11.20, 12.18, 12.23, 12.26, and 12.32. Third we have the many passages in which Marcus remarks on putrid, filthy, contemptible, trivial, paltry, worthless, or vile things: 4.48, 5.10, 5.33, 6.13, 6.36, 8.24, 8.37, 9.14, 9.24, 9.36, 12.2, 12.31, 12.33. Reflection on these three ubiquitous themes is vital for understanding Marcus’ unique brand of Stoicism and for appreciating how his sober, deflationary style compares with the styles of the other Imperial age Stoics: Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus. Yet Gill’s notes flag no more than a handful of the sections cited above and similarly interrelated sections, thus leaving unaided the reader who would wish to trace such pervasive themes systematically. The rather skimpy notes could have been remedied by a subject index, but none is provided.

One might think that the relative brevity of Gill’s notes and the absence of a subject index were necessary concessions to the publisher’s constraints on the total length of the book. Yet this is not the case because two appendices are included: a twenty-four page essay on Marcus Aurelius by Matthew Arnold, and a twenty page essay titled “Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism.” The latter contains extracts from Gill and Hard’s edition of Epictetus“which illustrate important themes in Stoicism which Marcus developed in his own way” (181), extracts from R. W. Sharples’Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, 3 and an extract from Elizabeth Asmis’ “The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius.”4 Arnold’s essay 5 is an illuminating window onto the cultural reception of Marcus and Stoicism in mid-nineteenth century England. Thus the first appendix is a welcome feature of this edition. The second appendix, on the other hand, would not be terribly helpful for readers such as advanced undergraduate students.

Now for the translation. Hard (hereafter “H.”) fairly describes many passages of Marcus’ Greek as “harsh, crabbed, odd or awkward” (xviii). H. explains that he has tried to “provide a close translation in the sense that the sequence of thought and the phraseology of the original are respected as far as possible, and Marcus’ thoughts have not been exclusively recast, let alone paraphrased, as in some of the more literary translations in the past,” while at the same time not reproducing “some of the less pleasing idiosyncracies of Marcus’ style, and its asperities and occasional obscurities” (xix). H. acknowledges a considerable debt to the 1944 two volume Oxford edition of the Meditations by A. S. L. Farquharson (hereafter “F.”), and reports that he has generally followed F.’s Greek text (xix). Below I compare H.’s translation of three excerpts from τῶν εἰς ἑαυτόν with F.’s translation in the 1990 OUP edition.

First consider this passage from 2.12:

H. “How swiftly all things vanish away, both the bodies themselves in the universe, and the remembrance of them in time; and of what a nature is all that falls beneath our senses, especially the things that entice us with the promise of pleasure, or frighten us with the thought of pain, or are noised abroad through vanity. How cheap it all is, how despicable, sordid, corruptible, dead, must be left to our faculty of reason to determine” (13).

F. “How all things are vanishing swiftly, bodies themselves in the Universe and the memorials of them in Time; what is the character of all things of sense, and most of all those which attract by the bait of pleasure or terrify by the threat of pain or are shouted abroad by vanity, how cheap, comtemptible [sic], soiled, corruptible, and mortal: these are for the faculty of mind to consider” (13).

H. comes off both a bit more readable and slightly more literal (e.g., νεκρ as “dead” rather than “mortal”) than F.

Elsewhere H. does not shrink from preserving Marcus’ coarseness. Consider the last sentence of 5.12:

“πρόιθι οὖν καὶ ἐρώτα, εἰ τιμητέον καὶ ἀγαθὰ ὑποληπτέοντὰ τοιαῦτα, ὧν προεπινοηθέντων οἰκείως ἂν ἐπιφέροιτο τὸ τὸνκεκτημένον αὐτὰ ὑπὸ τῆς εὐπορίας “οὐκ ἔχειν ὅποι χέσῃ”

H. “Go on, then, and ask whether we should prize and accept as good those things with regard to which, when we have formed an idea of them in our mind, we could fittingly remark of their possessor that because he is so richly endowed with them, ‘he has nowhere where he can shit'” (39).

F. “Go on, then, and ask whether one should respect and conceive to be good, things to which when one has thought of them one could properly apply the proverb that their owner is so well off that he ‘has not a corner where to ease himself'” (38).

For χέζειv H. eschews both “ease oneself” (F., M. Staniforth, C. R. Haines, George Long) and “relieve oneself” (Grube). To euphemize χέζειv as these other translators have blunts Marcus’ earthy humor by prettifying, and thereby distorting, his explicit style. H. is to be commended for preserving Marcus’ occasionally vulgar frankness.

Finally, consider the last sentence of 12.1:

ἐὰν οὖν, ὅτε δήποτε πρὸς ἐξόδῳ γίνῃ, πάντα τὰ ἄλλα κατα- λιπὼν μόνον τὸ ἡγεμονικόν σου καὶ τὸ ἐν σοὶ θεῖον τιμήσῃς καὶ μὴ τὸπαύσασθαί ποτε <τοῦ> ζῆν φοβηθῇς, ἀλλὰ τό γε μηδέποτε ἄρξασθαικατὰ φύσιν ζῆν, ἔσῃ ἄνθρωπος ἄξιος τοῦ γεννήσαντος κόσμου καὶπαύσῃ ξένος ὢν τῆς πατρίδος καὶ θαυμάζων ὡς ἀπροσδόκητα τὰ καθ’ ἡμέραν γινόμενα καὶ κρεμάμενος ἐκ τοῦδε καὶ τοῦδε.

H. “If then, when the time for your departure draws near, you have put all else behind you and you honour your governing faculty alone and what is divine within you, and if what you hold in fear is not that some day you will cease to live, but rather that you may never begin to live according to nature, you will be a person who is worthy of the universe that brought you to birth, and you will no longer be a stranger in your native land, wondering at what happens day after day as if it were beyond foreseeing, and in thrall to one thing and the next” (113).

F. “If then, when you arrive at last at your final exit, resigning all else, you honour your governing self alone and the divine element within you, if what you dread is not that some day you will cease to live, but rather never to begin at all to live with Nature, you will be a man worthy of the Universe that gave you birth, and will cease to be a stranger in your own country, surprised by what is coming to pass every day, as at something you did not look to see, and absorbed in this thing or in that” (111).

First, F.’s “to live with Nature” is too loose for καταφύσινζῆν. Second, in his polite avoidance of “man” for ἄνθρωπος H. again improves on F. here and elsewhere. But “beyond foreseeing” is little better than “did not look to see” for ἀπροσδόκητον. Wouldn’t “unexpected” have been plainer? Nevertheless, overall H.’s translation is noticeably better than F.’s.

Assuming that undergraduate students in courses on classical philosophy are the intended audience for the Wordsworth and OUP editions, which is the better choice? Gill’s introduction and notes are not superior to Rutherford’s. The OUP edition has an index of names but no subject index, whereas the Wordsworth edition has no index at all. The OUP edition has a selection from the correspondence of Marcus Aurelius and his tutor Marcus Cornelius Fronto, whereas the Wordsworth edition has the Matthew Arnold essay and a small sample of recent scholarship on Marcus and Stoicism. Hard’s translation is at once more graceful and more frank than Farquharson’s. Whether the twenty-four pages of letters between Aurelius and Fronto is more desirable than the twenty-four page long Arnold essay will depend on the instructor. One could still, however, hold out hope for an edition of the Meditations with a detailed subject index offering more systematic textual guidance than either the OUP or the Wordsworth Classics edition.

1. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by the late A. S. L. Farquharson, and a selection from the letters of Marcus and Fronto translated by R. B. Rutherford, with introduction and notes by R. B. Rutherford (Oxford, 1990).

2. See my review in Ancient Philosophy 17 (Spring 1997): 268-273.

3. Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy (London, 1996).

4. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.36.3 (Berlin, 1989): 2228-2252.

5. Originally published in Essays in Criticism: First Series (London, 1865) pp. 217-241.